I will write more about this later, and elsewhere, but for now and for the record, here’s this:
Upon hearing about the UCSB massacre — and UCSB was my beloved school, and Isla Vista was where I spent some of the happiest days of my young life — my first thought was that the media would soon all chime in saying that Elliot Rodger had low self-esteem. This reminded me of how, after my previous book Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto was published, I became highly conscious of how the media categorizes every crazed killer as a loner. As if that orientation explained everything.
But now, watching in abject horror the creepy narcissistic videos that Rodger (who had very high self-esteem, in my opinion) posted at YouTube, I thought: I’ve written two books about two different modes of outsiderism: intraversion in Party of One and low self-esteem in Unworthy. And I realized that readers of either book, or both books, might wonder how these two forms of outsiderism intersect and interact. Does one cause the other? Does one cure the other?
First truth: Lonerism is not a bad thing. It is not a pathology. It does not, in and of itself, cause depression or anxiety or low self-esteem. What causes depression and anxiety and especially low self-esteem is quite often other people’s reactions to and abuse of loners. In other words, we don’t have a problem with ourselves and our lonerishness. But other people do, so they punish us or try to “fix” us.
And THIS can cause low self-esteem. Not the simple beautiful fact of how we are, but the tragedy of other people messing with us because they can’t handle how we are.
I was born a loner and am still a loner. I am also a person who has struggled for most of my life with extremely low self-esteem — not because I was and am a loner, but because at a young age I was at the mercy of people who took it upon themselves to criticize my lonerishness, to condemn it, to mock it and to pathologize it. My mother, an extravert who feared that my lonerishness reflected badly on her — that it would make others think she had produced a crazy antisocial freak — buffaloed me into attending day camps, taking not private but group music lessons, joining Jewish youth groups and joining Campfire Girls. At school, which I hated because school is a nonstop crowd, teachers pitied or disliked me for my intraversion and deliberately forced me into playgroups and teams. My classmates and fellow Campfire Girls teased me relentlessly.
And this is how my self-esteem was stolen. It’s further detailed in this excerpt from Unworthy:
It’s good to learn music and art. It’s good to learn camping and crafting and life-saving skills. Drama might come in handy someday. But. Learning these things this way, jostled by jeering kids, is brutal for a loner like me. Had I ever been told You are a solitary type, it’s who you are, a lot of people are this way, including famous brilliant ones, and it’s okay, my self-esteem might be intact. But I have never heard any such thing. Instead, I have always been watched—-worriedly, angrily—-by parents, teachers, counselors who dislike the fact that I like to play alone. Sometimes they ask if I am sick. Sometimes they ask why I refuse to share. Sometimes they seat me next to social kids who make me want to disappear.
And every team on which I am the last child chosen, every dance I spoil by being out of step, every giggling clique that points at me and laughs lowers my self-esteem because even while selling myself out, I fail. I should not care what others think of me, but in a crowded world, insults can sear. Every new group activity is one more forced ordeal of inauthenticity, anxiety, pretense, and self-denial.
Allowed to learn some of these camping-crafting-dancing skills alone, or with a tutor or my father or my best friend would have had the opposite effect, making me not just skilled but proud and confident. After twelve years of group activities, I can crochet and play arpeggios and pitch tents and make tourniquets. I also hate my hands, my hair, my feet, my face, my voice—especially when singing or starting to cry.
Second truth: I prefer solitude to crowds — not because my low self-esteem renders me shy or afraid of people or because I think I’m not good enough company to be around others. I prefer solitude to crowds because I was born preferring solitude to crowds, which is a fine and normal preference. I would prefer solitude to crowds whether my self-esteem was low or high. As I progress on my path toward self-acceptance and leave more and more of my self-loathing behind, I will still prefer solitude. I could become the happiest, most serene and ecstatic person on earth. And I would still prefer solitude.